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Buffalo explores zoning to create more affordable housing

Many Buffalo residents and city officials have noticed a rapid rise in apartment rates as the city experiences its first construction boom in decades.

While it may be a positive sign for the city's economic fortunes, it has also had the effect of making rental units unaffordable for longtime residents of some neighborhoods.

To ensure they are not displaced, the Buffalo Common Council is considering legislation that would require the owners of new multiple-unit developments -- especially those benefiting from public financing or tax breaks -- to set aside a portion of their units as affordable housing or below market rate.

More than 100 people showed up Tuesday in Council Chambers in City Hall for a hearing set up by the council's legislative committee.

Many voiced their support for inclusionary zoning.

Lynda Stephens, a North Buffalo resident, was one of the first to speak in favor of amending the Green Code to add an inclusionary zoning requirement for all new residential housing that involves six or more units.

"By that, I mean affordable housing units should be required as a condition of site approval. We have all noticed dramatic increases in rents in Buffalo. After so many years of relatively low rental costs all over the city, this is quite startling," said Stephens.

High rents, Stephens and others observed, cause a very serious hardship for many city residents who rent.

"I've seen the value of my own double-house in North Buffalo increase 20 percent in the last three years, based on my county tax bills' estimated assessments," Stephens said. "And let's get real. Tax law changes have tilted advantages towards property owners but not towards renters."

Council President Darius G. Pridgen said that, while the Council has not yet proposed any specific legislation in support of inclusionary zoning, the city's Office of Strategic Planning has hired a consultant to study how best to implement such a law.

"I want to be clear, though, the Council has not made any decision. There have been numbers in the press out there. There have been proposals, as it should be. This is a process, so that, at the end of the day, hopefully, this Council and the administration will agree that we will come up with something that is unique for Buffalo," Pridgen said.

There are some skeptical about imposing such zoning on new developments.

Daniel J. Leonard, senior director of economic development with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said his agency should be included in helping to craft the law. He said the Buffalo real estate market may not be nearly strong enough to support what a lot of people might like to see. It will be important for the city to rely upon data from its consultant before moving forward with plans requiring specific set asides.

Pridgen said the city will not make a decision until it has those numbers from a consultant. He also noted that an inclusionary zoning law might be only one tool among others used to ensure economical and racial diversity in Buffalo's neighborhoods.

"I want to be clear tonight. I don't want to see whatever our decision is go on for years... because in years there will be more houses built and more apartments made," said Pridgen. "There is one thing I do not want to see in Buffalo, N.Y., is for Buffalo to look like downtown Chicago."

Will Yelder and other residents urged lawmakers to take the issue seriously.

"Since 1967, the East Side has been in an exclusionary zone. When are we going to be included?" Yelder said.

Luzc Velez, a West Side resident, expressed concern about longtime neighborhood residents who were being pushed out of their communities by rising rents and how it had potential to destroy the current diversity of such neighborhoods.

"I want to continue to live in the mosaic that is Buffalo... but it's slowly beginning to be pushed out," Velez said.

Amina Johnson, a tenant advocate for PUSH Buffalo, offered one of a half dozen slogans that were shouted out in Council Chambers during the hearing.

"The rent is too high. Even slumlords gentrify," Johnson said. "We need housing that's affordable. It's a necessity, not a luxury."

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